Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Spotlight on Certification: Certified Interventional Radiology Cardiovascular Coder (CIRCC®)

Lately I've heard a lot of buzz about the AAPC's credential, Certified Interventional Radiology Cardiovascular Coder (CIRCC).  Interventional radiology (IR) coders are in demand because of the complexity of the field and the notoriously high error rates seen on audits. It may sound like a great credential to get, but before you make any sudden movements, here's what you need to know about the CIRCC exam.

Why this credential exists
I've been coding now for 22 years and I've seen quite a bit.  I helped train the workforce in ICD-10-CM and ICD-10-PCS. I've audited ICD-9, ICD-10, CPT and HCPCS codes.  I've read the Federal Register on DRGs and APCs.  But the hardest thing I've ever had to learn to code is IR and cardiology.  The coding rules are complicated, ever changing, and often inconsistent for different parts of the body.  Learning how to code IR and cardiology procedures by just looking at the CPT book is tough enough, but not all the rules are written there.  There are other societies that develop suggested guidelines and then there are the payer's rules and interpretations.  In a hospital setting, an understanding of IR and cardiology coding also usually requires an understanding of hospital charging and how departments are credited revenue.  This credential exists to show that you've mastered these areas of coding.  In my mind, this is the most difficult area of coding there is.

This is not an entry-level credential
I took the CIRCC exam four years ago with about 10 years of experience under my belt.  It was a tough exam.  As a matter of fact, it was the hardest multiple choice exam I've ever taken and I would put it up there with the Certified Coding Specialist (CCS) test as one of the toughest.  If you are thinking you will get the CIRCC and then land a job as an IR coder without any experience, think again.  This is the test you take after you've been coding those types of cases for a long time and feel confident in your abilities.  AAPC recommends, but does not require, at least two years of coding experience before taking the CIRCC exam.

What's on the test
The CIRCC exam is spotlighted for its focus on IR coding, but it also includes cardiology procedures.  The procedures we're talking about are surgical-type procedures done in a radiology suite or cardiac cath lab using radiological (fluoroscopic) guidance.  For IR, this can be vascular studies (angiograms) and interventions (e.g., angioplasty, stenting, thrombectomy) or nonvascular procedures (e.g., placement of biliary stents, nephrostomies, and fluoroscopically-guided biopsies).  For cardiology, this can be diagnostic cardiac catheterization, angioplasty and stenting, and cardiac electrophysiology studies and arrhythmia ablations.   If you don't know what any of that means, I don't recommend taking the test until you learn more!

What it costs
At the time of this writing, the cost to sit for the CIRCC exam is $400.  But the cost of taking the CIRCC doesn't end when you register and pass the exam.  Like other credentials, you need continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain the certification.  But unlike most other AAPC credentials, there are limited vendors from which you can get those CEUs.  Before you decide to take the test, look at the CEU requirements and visit the vendor websites (the AAPC has links) to see how much your CEUs will cost you and be very realistic about what you can afford.  If your primary job is coding these types of cases, check with your employer to see if they will reimburse you for any of the costs.  This is an expensive credential to maintain, but if it's valued by your employer, they may cover the costs.

Read all about it
I could regurgitate the contents of the AAPC's website about the CIRCC exam, but instead of doing that, I will direct you to their website with this simple instruction: Do your homework!  There is a plethora of information on the AAPC's website for this exam and it will tell you everything you need to know from the breakdown of the exam questions, approved manuals and materials (yes, you can bring anatomy cards showing selective vascular ordering), certification requirements, history of the exam, and FAQs.  If you were going to spend $400 on a new smartphone, you would probably read up on the different models before making a final decision.  Why wouldn't you also do this for a credential?  Don't take this exam until you've read all the fine print.

Preparing for the exam
Once you decide that you're ready to pull the plug and take the test, it's time to prepare.  Even if you've coded these cases for a long time, there is still preparation to be done.  Here is my list of recommendations:

  • Get the right CPT book.  The AAPC's website is very clear that they will only allow you to use the American Medical Association's (AMA) version of CPT.  If you have a CPT book from any other publisher, you cannot use it.  I recommend the AMA's Professional Edition of CPT for its color coding and pictures.  It's more expensive than the standard edition, but I think it's worth the money.
  • Mark your CPT book.  Don't waste time writing in the things you already know, but I do recommend making cross-reference notes for any codes that have a one-to-one relationship.  For example, I wrote all of the C codes for drug-eluting stent placements next to their CPT counterparts so I didn't have to open another book during the test.  Sometimes CPT includes instructional notes in the Surgical section directing you to the Radiology component code.  And sometimes it doesn't, so I wrote those in too.  Especially if you are used to using an encoder, make sure you have your book set up so you can flip to different code sections fast.
  • Get the exam prep book.  Yes, it costs more money and no, I am not being paid by the AAPC to push their products!  The exam prep book will go over what's on the test.  It will give you practice questions and show you the type of questions that will be on the exam.  The one thing I remember from the exam prep book is it said in several places that none of the questions are meant to be trick questions.  That might sound like a no-brainer, but when you really get into IR coding, you'll see why that's an important thing to remember.
  • Spend your study time on your weak areas.  Don't waste your time studying things you already know.  If there is an area that is not your strongest, make notes on those CPT sections and find tricks to help you remember.  When I took the test, I was strong in vascular IR and cardiology, but not so much on nonvascular IR, so those sections of my book had the most notes.  Remember: you can write notes in your CPT book, you just can't put any loose pieces of paper in them.  
  • Take a prep class.  If you can find a class that will cover part or all of the exam content, enroll now.  I am teaching a vascular interventional radiology class in October 2017 in Denver, which covers some of the trickiest IR coding.  I would love to see you there and chat about your CIRCC aspirations!
If you've ever considered taking the CIRCC exam, I hope you found this post useful.  Want to learn more about IR coding?  Stay tuned - more posts to come!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

What You Need to Know About Coding Using EMRs and Encoding Software

I haven't been perusing as many coding sites and Facebook pages recently as I was a couple of years ago, but I did recently come across a post that captured my attention.  Someone was asking if there was a way to get trained in a popular electronic medical record (EMR) to help them meet the requirements of a job.  It seems many employers are looking for work experience with a certain EMR before considering a person for a position.  Is this fair?  Well, it may not seem fair if you've never worked as a coder, but if you have, chances are pretty good you've had exposure to some of the major EMR software vendors.  For those of you who don't have any practical EMR experience, here's what you need to know.

Is it reasonable to require EMR experience?
First of all, if you've never coded before and your coding school didn't have a relationship with an EMR vendor allowing you to learn the system, any reasonable hiring manager is not going to expect you to have experience.  And if they aren't reasonable, then you don't want to work for them anyway (problem solved!).  If I pick up your resume and see you have taken some coding classes and have never worked in the healthcare field but are "proficient" in EMR software, I am going to have more than a few questions for you.  How did you get your EMR experience?  Which systems did you use?  What did you like or not like about it?  In other words, I won't believe you have experience with it and I will try to weed that out of you.  Or even worse, I may be inundated with resumes and feel like you're lying about something on the resume and I may not have the time or energy to do any investigating.  Your resume may be relegated to the "no" pile.

Fact: your employer will train you
Here's a fun fact.  Even if you've worked as a coder for 2 years using a certain EMR software, you will have to have training at your new facility.  You may think you know everything there is to know about a certain EMR software, but they are all customizable.  As a consultant, I've used the same EMR software at several clients and they are all a little different.  You may find documents stored in different places.  Your favorite EMR feature at Hospital A may not have been "turned on" at Hospital B.  So expect to be trained on the same software you've already been using every time you change employers.

EMRs are from Mars, encoders are from Venus
EMRs aren't the same as encoders.  Of course the EMR is where you will find the medical record documentation, but it is also where you will find financial information and abstracted data.  Encoders and computer assisted coding (CAC) software are usually separate from the EMR.  As a matter of fact, there aren't a lot of EMR vendors who are also in the business of encoder software.  That makes two different kinds of systems you need to be aware of.  But have no fear: while it's a plus if you have been trained on an encoder, you can expect your employer to train you there too.

You need to understand interfaces
Rather than obsessing over how to get trained on a particular EMR or encoder, here's something more important for you to focus on: you need to understand software interfaces.  Because your EMR and encoder are coming from two different vendors and they have to talk to each other, they rely on interfaces.  How that's set up is not important to you (although it's very important to the information technology department), but how and why you enter data the way you do is based on interfaces.  I've coded for lots of hospitals with lots of different computer systems, but in general, here's how it works:

  1. You pull up the patient in the EMR.
  2. If you work with a CAC product, you launch the CAC by clicking a button in the EMR.  This opens the CAC using an interface, so that it automatically pulls up the patient you are working on in the EMR and displays medical record documentation for coding.
  3. If you don't have a CAC, you review the medical record documentation in the EMR and then launch the encoder using a button in the EMR.
  4. Once you are in the CAC/encoder, you code the record.  This software allows you to look up codes and save them to a list.  When you're done, you click a complete button, and then you find yourself back in the EMR in the abstracting screens.
  5. If the interface is working properly, everything you entered in the CAC/encoder is shown on your abstracting screens.  This is also where you can assign surgeons and dates to procedures as well as any other abstracted data your facility chooses to collect.
  6. You send the account to billing in the EMR by indicating the account is complete.
(Most) EMRs don't have grouper software
Groupers are the magic software that calculate DRGs and APCs based on assigned codes.  Grouper logic is something that is built into CAC/encoder software, but not into EMR software.  If you ever need to make a change to codes to rebill an account, you can't just change the code in most EMRs.  It's pretty standard practice to reopen the account, relaunch the CAC/encoder, make corrections, send them back to the EMR through the interface, and then send for rebill.  This concept is something that many coders don't understand and, I would argue, this concept is more important than knowing the ins and outs of any particular EMR product as a new hire.

Knowing how to code is more important than anything
After all this, the most important thing you need to know to get a coding job is how to code.  Your employer can teach you everything I've mentioned above specific to your facility.  And they can also work with you on enhancing your coding skills.  But it's more important for you to focus on coding, coding guidelines, and a cursory background in coding reimbursement than it is for you to know an EMR inside-out.